American Students Who Struggle With English Outnumber Kids Born Abroad

Many children who were educated exclusively in U.S. schools still can't speak the language well.


Being born in the United States does not guarantee proficiency in English. Maybe you knew this, maybe you didn’t. But it was new to me. Here’s what I learned.

This month, the Los Angeles Times wrote about California’s status as the first state in the country to create a program aimed at improving the language skills of students who are struggling to learn English, a group known as English language learners (ELLs). In this case, the students targeted are long-term English language learners, likely having lived in the country for years—possibly their whole lives—without being able to speak the language fluently. What caught my eye was the opening anecdote: “I should be more confident in English because I was born here, but I’m embarrassed that I haven’t improved myself,” said Dasha, a junior at a Los Angeles high school.

Is Dasha a rare native-born American student who struggles with English even as she progresses to the upper grade-levels? Or is she part of a larger community, a notable subset within the ELL student population?

The answer, definitively, is the latter. The overall percentage of students ages six through 21 in grades kindergarten through 12 who were born outside of the U.S. is 4.7 percent, or 2.37 million students, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute’s Jeanne Batalova that uses 2012 Census data. But the percentage of U.S. students who are considered English language learners is nearly double that: 9.1 percent, or 4.4 million students, according to 2013 U.S. Department of Education Data. While the two figures come from different data sources, it’s clear that a large percentage of English language learners were born in the U.S.

The map below, which was created on Google by the Education Writers Association and reflects data compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, shows the percentage of foreign-born students in each state. Click on the red marker over each state to find both the total number of students ages six through 21 who were enrolled in K-12 programs in 2012 and how many of those pupils were foreign born. An expanded version of the map can be found here.

Share of Students Who Were Foreign-Born (2012)

This gulf between the number of students born abroad and those considered English language learners is particularly wide in several states. California, where roughly 93 percent of the child population was considered native born in 2012, had nearly a quarter of its students enrolled in programs for English language learners that same year.

Eleven percent of Oregon’s students are English language learners while just 4 percent of children in that state were born abroad.

Texas and Nevada have ELL student populations of 15 percent and 20 percent, respectively. The non-native child population in each state is around 6 percent.

(Data geeks should, however, take heed: The U.S. Census and the education department measure English language proficiency differently. Census data relies on the self-assessments of whomever in the home fills out the decennial forms, which may lead to an inflated or deflated sense of English proficiency. The Department of Education, on the other hand, collects its data from state information that includes the number of students whose test results indicate they're in need of ELL programming.)

Percentage of ELLs in Public Schools By State (2011-12)
Data: National Center for Education Statistics

The observation that ELL students outnumber foreign-born pupils isn’t particularly new, though. In 2007, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that a little more than half of adolescent ELL students in the U.S. were born in the country. Among those born in the U.S., the institute calculated that “up to 27 percent of all [ELL] adolescents are members of the second generation, and 30 percent are third generation, meaning that many students educated exclusively in U.S. schools still cannot speak English well.”

The composition of English language learners also depends notably on the kids’ age, with U.S.-born ELL students concentrated in the elementary grades. Nearly nine in 10 ELL students between kindergarten and grade five were born in the U.S. That figure drops to about 60 percent among students in grades six through 12 who were enrolled in ELL programming. These figures come from a Migration Policy Institute analysis using 2013 Census data.

Percentage of Foreign- Versus U.S.-Born Students Who Are English Language Learners (2013)
American Community Survey via Migration Policy Institute

“Coming from families who are limited-English proficient affects the trajectory, both the academic and English language acquisition, of children born into these families,” said Jeanne Batalova, who calculated the Migration Policy Institute data, in a phone interview. “We also know that children from immigrant families are less likely to enroll in early childhood education programs, which often helps them to prepare to learn.”

“The disadvantages are cumulative,” she continued. The gap between abilities and skills for students who lack language proficiency can seem narrow in earlier grades. “But when the academics become more complicated and complex, children are lagging more and more behind,” Batalova said. “Disadvantages have an unfortunate cumulative nature."

Other factors that appear to affect English-language acquisition include the state in which an immigrant family settles. In the central states of the nation, as well as the Southeast, “these are states that to some degree were caught off-guard at the rapid rise of the immigrant population,” Batalova said. In other words, they lacked the academic support systems necessary to improve the language skills of these incoming students. In many cases, literacy teachers either weren’t familiar with the new students' cultures or weren’t proficient in the languages that these children spoke at home.

Between 2001 and 2012, 10 states experienced colossal growth in the number of students enrolled in English-assistance programs, ranging from 135 percent in North Carolina to 610 percent in South Carolina, according to Sonya Douglass Horsford of George Mason University in Virginia and Carrie Sampson of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Other states on the list include Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas, and Virginia.

This post appears courtesy of Latino Ed Beat.